First off, anyone who says Vin Diesel isn't a hipster is wrong. In XXX, a 2002 documentary about Vin Diesel's life that was erroneously mislabeled an action-adventure movie by the studio, Vin Diesel wears Vans sneakers, drives a convertible off a cliff to make a political statement about the societal worth of violent video games and rap music, hangs out with Bam Margera in a loft that has a half pipe in it, buddies up with an evil anarchist by quoting Vandals lyrics at him, goes to two raves, parachutes four times, evades a hailstorm of bullets by doing dirt bike tricks, and causes an avalanche with dynamite then races said avalanche on a snowboard. I think we all know only a true hipster would do this stuff.
Even if I told at least two lies in the above paragraph––Vin Diesel is definitely not a hipster, and, as much as I want it to be a documentary, XXX is no more than your run-of-the-mill extreme sports/spy movie––there is one greater truth to be hard here, and that truth is this: Despite being a 50-year-old bald dude who became a millionaire by appearing in beautifully absurd movies about cars and explosions, Vin Diesel is almost as real hip-hop as Ludacris, one of his many costars in The Fate of the Furious, the new Fast and Furious movie that comes out tomorrow and is stylized on the poster as F8.
Before Vin Diesel hit it big as an actor, he was a bouncer at the legendary New York club The Tunnel, famous for both its impact on the city's rave scene as well as birthing an entire subgenre of hip-hop. But much like the physical roots of Groot, the sentient tree that Vin Diesel voices in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, Vin Diesel's roots to real hip-hop run even deeper. Vin Diesel is from New York and is old enough to be your dad, which means he was able to witness the birth of hip-hop firsthand. He even became a bit player in the scene during the mid-80s. Here he is as a wee lad, performing in an instructional breakdancing video that features him nearly getting kicked in the nuts by his dance partner at the 1:45 mark. Watch it, and let its majesty wash over you:
Perhaps most notably, Vin Diesel once tried valiantly and failed admirably at rapping. And while many entertainers of a certain age have made a one-off rap track at some point in their careers, Vin Diesel's is particularly notable because it was done over a beat produced by Arthur Russell of all people. The fact that Russell, the renowned underground musician and cellist whose work crisscrossed between experimental composition, folk music, and disco––often in the span of a single song––tried his hand at hip-hop at all is, in and of itself, significant. When you throw a young Vin Diesel, performing under his given name Mark Sinclair, into the mix, the whole situation becomes sublimely weird. In a recording from the session that surfaced a few years ago, it's clear that Diesel/Sinclair never quite latches onto the beat, seeming lost over the syncopated rhythms. If the session had yielded a genuine song, maybe Vin Diesel could have been the next LL Cool J––or given the alien quality of Russell's production, the next Rammellzee.
I emailed Vin Diesel's team in the hopes of talking to him about his completely insane intersection with experimental music history, but citing Vin Diesel's hectic schedule––he's taking a break between promoting The Fate of the Furious, in which he plays Dominic "Vin Diesel" Toretto, and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, in which he plays the aforementioned Groot––they declined. However, I did manage to get ahold of Gary Lucas, the man who set the whole recording up.
"I get enthusiastic for young artists and people I feel who have been overlooked by the mainstream," said Lucas, an avant-garde guitarist who got his start as a Captain Beefheart sideman and later helped break a young Jeff Buckley. In addition to his guitar work, Lucas held down a desk job in the mid-80s at CBS Records and did A&R work for the indie label Upside Records. By 1986, he said, "I was on the hunt for a rapper." When he found Mark Sinclair, a teenager working at an ice cream parlor around the corner from his West Village apartment, "I knew he was a star," Lucas remembered.
"He was hilarious––he'd do this English accent that cracked everybody up. He'd breakdance in front of the ice cream store, and he'd do this rap a capella. 'Rhyme creator, MC dictator / Afro-relator, prognosticator'––that was the first couplet." When Lucas took Sinclair to a Run-DMC concert at the Apollo Theater, Lucas said, "Mark was macking! He had a pimp jacket on and looked so cool and hip. All the young girls sitting there waiting for Run-DMC swooned. They were like, 'WOW! Who is that?'" After watching the madness, Lucas's friend, recording engineer Jeff Travis, suggested Lucas hook Sinclair up with Arthur Russell for a session, noting it "could be a really cool combination." Remember, the 80s were a different time: Having an underground disco-cellist make a rap song with a sexy breakdancing teen made about as much sense as the guy from The New York Dolls reinventing himself as a lounge singer, Run-DMC covering Aerosmith, The KLF openly violating copyright law for the sake of performance art, or Debbie Harry rapping. If all that crazy shit worked, why couldn't this?
Lucas first met Arthur Russell while producing a session with the composer Peter Gordon, who brought Russell along to cut the track "That Hat." Lucas was impressed: "I thought meeting Arthur was the freshest musical experience I'd had since I met Captain Beefheart." Though Russell was already a hero in downtown circles, he hadn't achieved the sort of recognition that had come to contemporaries such as David Byrne and Television. With any luck, a hip-hop record might change that. Stars in his eyes, Lucas set up the session. However, much like in Furious 7 when Vin Diesel's character escapes Jason Statham's character's grenade launcher by driving his supercar out of the window of the tallest building in Abu Dhabi to the second tallest in building in Abu Dhabi before he realizes that the supercar doesn't have any brakes so he has to jump the car to the third tallest building in Abu Dhabi in order to smash into some ancient art in order to slow it down before he and Paul Walker's character ditch the car just moments before it falls thousands of feet to the ground, the "whole thing went awry."
Lucas explained, "I have to say at that point Mark was not a very good freestyle rapper. He was really good at delivering his rap a capella, but when we tried to put it to a beat, he was a bit at sea." To make matters more difficult, he said, "Arthur would just start the tape at a random moment," which threw Sinclair off even further. "Mark was funny about it. He kept saying, 'Hey man, it's the white part of me fucking it up!'"
Lucas told me that he brought the young Sinclair in for another studio session with Sugar Hill Records, but things didn't get past rehearsals. "Mark was a wise-ass; he's still a wise-ass," Lucas said lovingly. "Keith [Le Blanc, the label's in-house drummer] said, 'I can't work with this guy.' Now, he's probably kicking himself."
The meeting of a teenage Vin Diesel and Arthur Russell says a lot of things about the artistic climate of New York in the mid-80s. It represents a time when there wasn't just cross-pollination between hip-hop and avant-garde music––hip-hop was as avant-garde as no wave or post-punk. And given the monster success that Run-DMC was experiencing at the time, record labels knew there was money to be got and they were gonna get that shit, even if they had no idea what worked and what didn't. It made sense to pair one of the most talented figures in the New York underground with a charismatic teen who worked at an ice cream shop and see if there was gold to be found in them thar proverbial hills.
As for the session in question, it did have some positive effect. "Arthur was a wonderful force, a really beautiful guy," Lucas told me. "At that session, after the whole thing blew up and I was dejected, he said, 'You should do music full-time because you look happiest with a guitar in your hands.'" Russell's comment inspired Lucas to quit his job and become a full-time musician.
Though Sinclair eventually changed his name to Vin Diesel and found success in the film world, he stuck close to Lucas. "We took him into the family," Lucas said. "Later on, my wife cast an indie film he made on credit cards called Strays." Vin Diesel acolytes such as myself know that Strays paid off––Steven Spielberg eventually caught wind of the film and cast Diesel in Saving Private Ryan, thereby injecting a dose of nitrous oxide into the engine of the young actor's career. "He does things in his own way and in his own time," Lucas said. "It usually works for him, but sometimes he runs into people who were just as obstinate as he is."
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Nolan Allan is a photographer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.